There are two boxes on the shelf in front of you - one is called Windows XP, the other is the brand new Windows XP Professional (or Home) Edition N. Which do you choose?
European consumers will be faced with this unsavoury choice, the end result of the European Commission's (EC) ruling a year ago that Microsoft should stop abusing its monopoly on media players and unbundle its own product, Windows Media Player (WMP). The new version of the OS, XP N, will be XP without WMP, and it's already cost Microsoft 497.2 million euros for abusing its operating system monopoly in fines alone.
How did we get here? Microsoft's immediate response to the initial ruling was that it acted "as a brake on innovation" and harmed both the market and consumers by producing "less choice and higher prices". And over the last year, Microsoft has twisted and turned in a bid to evade the ruling's consequences.
In June, it won a suspension of the order, just a day before it was due to take effect, on the grounds of "a proper administration of justice". In September, a farcical episode occurred in which one EU commissioner is alleged to have said that Linux would disappear if Microsoft didn't grant access to its documentation, while Microsoft continued to argue that it was not abusing its market dominance. No-one found the member who allegedly made the remark in the first place.
In October 2004, Microsoft argued that the rapid entry of Apple and Sony into the music download sector meant there was competition, and that forcing it to unbundle WMP would "strike at the heart of Microsoft's business model". This point was rejected by the Commission.
And now we get to the matter of the product's name. Microsoft proposed that it call the new product Windows XP Reduced Media Edition, following criticism from the EC. European competition officials complained to Microsoft about the unappealing name of the product, and the software giant agreed to a name change.
Finally, the decision, in concert with the EC's competition officials has been made, and Windows XP N is the product's official new name.
The battle looks increasingly like a stalemate in which two behemoths have battered themselves into an exhausted standstill, with neither a clear winner. Which brings us back to the dilemma posited at the start of this story. Faced with the two, which would you buy?
That's right, you wouldn't buy Windows XP N and neither will most people. For once, we agree with Microsoft's lawyer, who once argued: "No rational end user would take [the unbundled version of Windows] because it provides no benefits."
We say: N stands for "no buyers".
However, the debate over the special Windows version isn't over yet. Competitors have complained that Microsoft has tweaked the special version of Windows so it won't work well with their applications. Microsoft is working with the commission on that issue, according to Drake.
Microsoft and the EC are also at odds over Microsoft's compliance with other parts of the commission's judgment. The EC earlier this month said that it wasn't satisfied with the terms Microsoft proposed for allowing programmers to license protocols that allow them to develop products that inter-operate well with Windows.
Microsoft has to come up with better licensing terms for its workgroup server protocols or face the possibility of financial penalties that could be up to five per cent of its worldwide daily sales.
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